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Women and children walk at Camp Roj in the countryside near al-Malikiyah (Derik) in Syria's northeastern Hasakah province.

DELIL SOULEIMAN/AFP/Getty Images

The House of Commons foreign affairs committee has recommended the government “pursue all options possible” to repatriate Canadian children detained in camps in northeastern Syria.

The report tabled in Parliament stems from the committee’s study of how COVID-19 is affecting children. In the report, MPs said they heard about deplorable conditions in the camps where Canadian children were detained, with no clean water, no access to basic health care, and constant conflict. Many children have died of preventable causes, they had heard.

In 2019, the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces detained thousands of people from more than 60 countries, including Canada, who were living among Islamic State terrorists when the group’s final holdout in the town of Baghouz crumbled. Foreigners were held in two camps, al-Hol and Roj, as well as prisons across northeast Syria. Human Rights Watch estimates that 45 Canadians are being held in Syria, including 24 children.

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Experts have decried the dire conditions in the camps, calling on governments to repatriate their citizens. It has been a complicated political dilemma for the Trudeau government – risking backlash for repatriating possible Islamic State sympathizers or leaving Canadians to languish.

The fact that Liberal MPs support repatriating children is a departure from the government’s position. For the past two years, Global Affairs Canada has said it’s too dangerous to send diplomatic staff to the region.

On Thursday, when asked about the report, Patricia Skinner, a spokesperson for GAC, reiterated that the government is aware of Canadian citizens detained in Syria and is concerned, particularly, about the children. Given the security situation, she said, the government’s ability to provide consular assistance is extremely limited. “Canadian consular officials are actively engaged with Syrian Kurdish authorities for information on Canadians in their custody,” said Ms. Skinner.

Ottawa agreed to repatriate a four-year-old girl in March, but prevented her mother from accompanying her. At the time, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said the child’s family took the initiative to bring her to Canada. In October, the government agreed to allow a five-year-old orphan to come home. Mr. Trudeau had called it an exceptional case.

The committee’s report also recommended that, while taking into account the safety of government employees, Ottawa make “every effort” to provide consular services to all Canadians detained in Syria. It recommends pursuing a response alongside the international community that is compliant with humanitarian and criminal law, while still pressing for accountability for crimes that may have been committed.

Farida Deif, Canadian director of Human Rights Watch, said her organization is encouraged by the report and hopes it changes the government’s political calculus.

“It’s a relief to see that the gravity of the human rights abuses experienced by Canadian children detained in northeast Syria is finally being recognized,” said Ms. Deif. “The report is especially welcome given that our engagement with the government over this past year on these consular cases seems to have fallen on deaf ears.”

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Opposition committee members tabled a supplementary report, recommending that the government act “immediately to facilitate the fast repatriation” of Canadian children and any other “innocent people” facing arbitrary detention abroad, particularly those in al-Hol and Roj camps. The opposition report urges Ottawa to immediately provide consular services to Canadians.

“The current policy of leaving children in indefinite detention to punish them for the crimes of others, and to hide behind the complexity of sorting the innocent from the guilty in order to justify doing nothing for the innocent, is immoral and unCanadian,” said the opposition’s report.

NDP MP Heather McPherson said the MPs tabled a supplementary report because they did not feel that the Liberals were prepared to articulate the urgency of the situation and the need to act in the main report.

“It should happen right away,” she told the Globe and Mail, adding that the NDP also believes all Canadians detained in Syria should be repatriated and those who have committed crimes should be tried.

Conservative MP Garnett Genuis said members of the opposition are seized by the plight of the Canadian children.

“It’s an urgent and fundamental human rights issue impacting Canadian citizens who are very young. It clearly pulls at all of us in the opposition parties,” he said.

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